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Biden's media diet: Newspapers, magazines, books, and Apple News

Posted December 6, 2020 11:48 p.m. EST

— A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

In the same way that "you are what you eat," as the old saying goes, you are what you read and watch and hear. Your beliefs and actions and bets are all based on your sources of information. That's why presidential media diets are important.

President Trump's time in office reaffirmed how much these diets matter and made me wonder: What sorts of news does the incoming president consume? What is President-elect Biden reading and watching? On "Reliable Sources," I asked Evan Osnos, CNN's newest contributor. Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of the new biography "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now."

"The President-Elect's media diet is what we would call the classics," Osnos said. "He relies on things like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal. He reads some of The Economist and The New Yorker. A lot of it in print. He also relies on Apple News to help him get headlines from other reputable media sources. What he is not doing, of course, is reading things like Newsmax, he's not watching One America News Network."

"He pays a lot of attention to the columnists," Osnos added, citing Thomas Friedman, who was also on the program.

"I forgot..."

Friedman recently spent an hour on the phone with Biden, and recapped it in this column for The New York Times.

In the feedback from readers, Friedman said it was striking to see "how many people said, 'I forgot what it was like to listen to a president who was not entirely self-reverential, not entirely exclamatory, not entirely promoting fake news.' Just a sound, sober, thoughtful conversation about the big issues of the day. 'I forgot!'"

"The other thing that really came through to me," Friedman said, "is that we are really lucky, I think, to have a president who is just really hard to hate at a time when our politics is so infused with hate. That's one of the things that I think is going to do him and the country well, I hope, in the coming months."

To be honest, I'm not nearly as optimistic as Friedman. Maybe that's because my media diet contains a lot of far-right, anti-Biden content...

How much does Biden read about himself?

This will be another big difference between the Trump and the Biden years. "One thing I know from experience that's interesting is, [Biden] doesn't parse every word that is written about him," Osnos said. "He doesn't pay all that much attention to it. With one exception: You go back to 1988, it was a great, classic portrait written of him by Richard Ben Cramer in the book 'What It Takes.' It was not altogether flattering. But he took it on board. He then ended up giving a eulogy at Cramer's funeral, in which he said that if somebody tells you something about yourself that's insightful, you have a responsibility to pay attention to it."

The books on Biden's nightstand

I'd like to know more about what books Biden is reading. A copy of David Sanger's 2012 book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power" recently appeared in a photo in a Biden newsletter. "If he is reading the book now, his timing is good -- we are headed into another nuclear crisis with Iran," Sanger told me. Biden would also be wise to read Sanger's 2018 followup, "The Perfect Weapon," or watching the accompanying HBO documentary.

One nonfiction work that Biden has talked about is "The Defining Moment," Jonathan Alter's history about the first 100 days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency. The book appeared in a photo of Biden's desk over the summer, and in October he told Brene Brown that he has been "re-reading" it. Biden's takeaway from the book: "There's no such thing as a guaranteed democracy."

"If you read just the first chapter," Biden said, "talk about how guys like Walter Lippmann were telling Roosevelt, 'We have to have a dictatorship to get it right.' ... There's nothing automatic about this. We've got to earn it every single generation. And I used to hear that all the time and think, 'That's not true. We have it permanently.' No, see what's happening now."

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